It has never been easy to be an immigration attorney. Faced with combatting injustice without sufficient resources, those of us who represent detained immigrants have seen these challenges increase with the recent hyper-growth of the private prison industry (PPI): 1600% increase in the number of beds from 1990 to 2010.
More than half of the industry’s $3 billion in profits comes from the detention of immigrants. Not surprisingly, due to PPI’s muscular lobbying efforts, there is scant congressional oversight of the industry. Over time, GEO and CCA, the two largest for-profit prison companies in the U.S. have given more than $10 million to individual politicians and spent almost $25 million on lobbying Congress.
As a result, we now live in a country where immigrants are treated as commodities. There are more than 200 detention facilities in the U.S. that operate under a congressional mandate of keeping 34,000 available beds per day. Despite testimony by Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson that the 34,000 bed mandate is more of an availability target than a quota, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends almost $2 billion a year, in part, on keeping these beds occupied. The result: a huge portion of the money is funneled to PPI.
In fact, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has stated that he wants all 34,000 beds to be filled at all times. Not surprisingly, in 2013, 43% of the political contributions made by the industry went to Rep. Culberson as well as Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Rep. John Carter (R-TX), the Head of the Homeland Security sub-committee. DHS reports that the average daily bed occupancy in 2015 has been 26,374.
Clearly, immigrants who are flight risks or who might endanger our communities should be detained. However, according to the ACLU, only half of the immigrants who are detained have a felony conviction and only 11% of them are violent criminals. The other half are merely undocumented migrants and their children caught in the web of our dysfunctional immigration system.
Instead of arguing that the “bed quota” is a myth, Secretary Johnson should direct DHS to expand its use of alternative programs for low-risk offenders. According to a Government Accountability Office report, the average daily cost of alternatives to detention (ATDs) is only $10.55, as opposed to the daily average cost of $162 to detain one person.
This is not a partisan issue – both parties are guilty of inflicting this stain on our national identity. The bed quota language was inserted into the federal appropriations bill in 2009 by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) and it’s been enforced by the Obama Administration, notwithstanding Secretary Johnson’s congressional testimony.
As the presidential campaign season shifts into high gear, I challenge the candidates from both major parties to clearly state their position on detention and the bed quota, as well as their relationships to PPI. If they have accepted donations from PPI, they should return or donate them. We must stop incarcerating people because of an unwarranted quota.
Written by Ally Bolour, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee